Powerful performances propel Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind at KC Actors Theatre

Brian Paulette as Jake

Brian Paulette as Jake; photo: Mike Tsai/KCAT

Sam Shepard’s 1985 A Lie of the Mind explores relationships and the differences between men and women. He speculates about men being loners spending hours in a freezing deer blind and women who can wait for men’s return and the fact that people persist in love at all. At its heart, Shepard says love can endure the most horrendous abuse, until it breaks.

Director Cinnamon Schultz hardly lets us catch our breath from the explosive opening of Jake (Brian Paulette) banging the receiver on the pay phone to the very end three-and-a-half hours later. Once again, Jake has beaten his wife, Beth (Christina Schafer), but this time thinks he has killed her. He is calling his brother, Frankie (Jake Walker), for help. When they meet up, Frankie thinks maybe Beth is not dead because she lived through it the last time. Jake goes off on him, accusing Frankie of conspiring against him with Beth, with their mother, Lorraine (Merle Moores), and sister, Sally (Hillary Clemens), and even of maybe being in love with Beth himself.

In short, Jake has a short fuse and a delusionally vivid imagination. As freaked as he is about killing Beth, Jake misses her terribly. Turns out Beth is not dead, but almost. She’s in a hospital with a serious head injury and brain damage, watched over by her brother Mike (Forrest Attaway). Their interaction in the hospital highlights another theme of the play: even caretakers can become abusers. Mike tries to help Beth but doesn’t have the skills or patience. Eventually Mike takes Sally back home to Montana, in the dead of winter.

Jake ends up back home Southern California in Lorraine’s house, where he grew up. As the oldest child, Jake is Lorraine’s baby. She smothers Jake with affection but shows much less motherly love to Frankie and Sally, who, of all the play’s characters, seems the most sensible.

Frankie assumes Beth is not dead, finds out where she lives, and goes there to find out for himself, only to be shot in the leg by Beth’s father, Baylor (Gary Neal Johnson), who thinks he is a deer crashing through the woods.

Jake’s family is weighed down by the past. He, Frankie and Sally grew up with their mom and drunken, abusive father, who died a horrible death. Lorraine feels abandoned by her husband even though he was a no-good drunk who may or may not have abused Sally, but who certainly mentally abused all of them.

Beth’s family is equally dysfunctional but we see them in the present. Baylor spends his time either in the deer blind or his recliner, and Mike doesn’t seem to have a job. He sulks around the house, irritated that Beth isn’t getting better. Meg (Jan Rogge), Beth’s mother, doesn’t have a clue how to help. They all talk to her in the same way some Americans talk to people whose language they don’t speak: slowly and loudly, so the person can understand.

Bret Engle’s scenic design highlights these two disparate worlds. Jon Robertson ties it together with the help of Kasey Rausch and Marco Pascolini of Country Duo, whose music we hear on the soundtrack. For opening night, the Duo performed a half-hour set before curtain time. Their updated vintage country sound features Rausch on guitar and vocals and Pascolini on pedal steel and baritone guitars. Their music is “original, which we made up ourselves,” and it’s clear they love what they do. (And I love what they do, too.)

To me, the hero of the play is Sally. She has the gumption to just get out and move on. Clemens imbues the role with the right combination of modern independence and family vulnerability. Gary Neal Johnson gives the crusty, cranky Boylan’s backwoods practicality the right twist of gallows humor and ignorance.

Paulette’s Jake is hell-bent for leather with a manic undercurrent of danger. He heads out to find Beth dressed in his late father’s Air Force leather flight jacket, wearing an American flag for a scarf (the one that was draped over his father’s coffin), and his underwear (Lorraine hid his pants to keep him in the house).

Beth is the crux of the play but her injuries are deceiving. Schafer’s halting speech makes Beth’s injury and trauma can almost cause even the audience to distance themselves from her. There’s a live, thinking person in there. Her emotions are intact; her opinions are unhesitatingly sharp. There is no lie in Beth’s mind.

With scenes in California and Montana, Shepard divides the play in two, and they never quite meet. There are two endings, first at Lorraine’s house and then in Montana (no actual spoilers here). Although the first ending is much more stunning and satisfying, the second ending wouldn’t work if the two were switched.

>Lorraine and Sally revisit the horrible details of their husband/father’s death and seem to exorcise lots of ghosts. In their last scene, they are calmly sorting family mementos, packing to leave. In Montana, Mike tries to force Beth into a decision. It’s not the one he had in mind.

A Lie of the Mind
Playwright: Sam Shepard
Director: Cinnamon Schultz
At: Kansas City Actors Theatre
Ends: October 1